Decision delayed

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Board puts off decision on whether to close Thaxton Elementary; BPS will remain open

By Tom Wilmoth

    The Bedford County School Board voted to delay making a decision on whether to close Thaxton Elementary School Thursday. A vote could come by the end of this year, after staff has a chance to craft a plan for where students from that school would be redistricted to attend.

    The board, at Thursday’s special called meeting held at Bedford Science and Technology Center, did rule out closing Bedford Primary School. The decision now apparently hinges on if, and when, Thaxton Elementary would be closed.
    The vote to close Thaxton Elementary failed  on  a  3-4  vote  with  board members Richard Downey, Kevin Willis, Kelly Harmony and Jason Johnson voting against the motion. Downey then made a request to have school staff prepare a plan to show how students from that school would be redistricted, should the school close.
    Earlier this year the board voted to close Body Camp Elementary at the end of the current school year. A state-mandated school efficiency review recommended closing two elementary schools—one in the Staunton River attendance zone and one in the Liberty zone.

Impassioned plea
    District 6 board member Kelly Harmony made a heartfelt plea to not close either school.
    Harmony, who as a Thaxton Elementary parent helped thwart an effort by the board to close the school several years ago, said her stand hasn’t changed now that she’s a board member.
    “I joined the fight many years ago,” she said. “I support small schools. Nothing has changed my decision on that.”
    She said maintenance needs at the schools rest with decisions the school board has made and the schools shouldn’t be held responsible. “For years the Liberty zone has gone without,” she said to cheers from the substantial crowd gathered at BSTC for the meeting. Her comments brought a standing ovation.
    She said it is cheaper to repair a school than build new space at another school. “These buildings are bought and paid for,” Harmony said.
    Some supervisors have indicated that they would cut the school budget by the suggested savings should schools be closed, Harmony said she has been told.
    She suggested at least putting off a decision on closing Thaxton Elementary for a year.

Swayed by the comments
    District 1 board member Richard Downey was swayed by Harmony’s comments, at least in the short term.
    Downey, who knew coming into the meeting that his vote would be the difference-maker, voted against closing Thaxton until the redistricting plan can be put together by school staff.
    “I came ready to make a decision,” Downey said, adding that emails and phone calls he had received from the public “pulled at my heart strings.”
    He said by delaying the decision, if Thaxton is closed, parents would at least be able to see what school their children would be attending and begin to make plans accordingly.
    “I’m hoping it will satisfy some of the parents’ concerns,” Downey said.    
    He said if a vote on closing Thaxton Elementary is held in December or January, school staff would still have time to do the work to close the school at the end of this school year.
    During Thursday’s meeting Downey called the school closure issue “the worst roller coaster ride I’ve been on since I’ve been on the school board.”

Other board comments
    District 5 board member Julie Bennington said making a decision on the Liberty zone schools was just as difficult as making a decision to close Body Camp, but because funding could be cut if it isn’t done, she supported closing Thaxton.
    So did District 3 board member Dr. John Hicks.
    “It’s very unfortunate that we are in the position that we have to close two schools in the county,” Dr. Hicks said.
    District 2 board member Jason Johnson didn’t support closing Body Camp Elementary, which is located in his district, and also was against closing Thaxton Elementary. He said before any decision is made, a master plan for redistricting should be put together.
    He also suggested revisiting the decision to close Body Camp Elementary. “I wish the residents of southside could have had the same opportunity (to see a redistricting plan before a decision was made),” he said, to a round of applause.
    District 7 board member Kevin Willis said while fewer students would be affected by closing Thaxton instead of Bedford Primary, it didn’t make any sense to close Thaxton, which is one of the county’s fully accredited schools. “I’m not going to do that,” he said of ignoring the school’s success.
    He said the burden of funding the other schools shouldn’t be placed on the children’s backs of Thaxton Elementary. “We’re responsible to educate all of the children,” he said.
    Willis said he has received overwhelming support for keeping open both Bedford Primary and Thaxton Elementary and, as a representative of his constituents, would not vote against those wishes.
    Board Chairman Gary Hostutler said declining enrollment has led to the need for the school system to close some schools. “We don’t have the industrial base here we once had,” he said.
    He said, even by closing two schools, the school system will have substantial capacity for more students within the two affected attendance zones.
    “I feel our backs are up against the wall,” Hostutler said of the need to make a decision.
    He favored closing Thaxton Elementary over Bedford Primary because fewer students would have to be moved to a new school.
Central Office recommendation
    Bedford County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch began Thursday’s meeting suggesting that of the two schools being considered for closure, he recommended closing Thaxton Elementary over Bedford Primary.
    “My heart goes out to the Thaxton community and the Bedford Primary School community,” he said of those supporters of the schools who have had to deal with the possibility of having their school closed. “Both communities have made it clear to me how much they love their schools.”
    Dr. Schuch said he believes that the school system needs to follow the efficiency review’s recommendation to close two schools in order not to lose the extra money the county is receiving for schools as a result of the city of Bedford’s reversion to a town in July 2013. The General Assembly has allowed BCPS to use a more favorable formula for receiving state funds for schools as a result of that reversion agreement. That funding, an additional $6 million a year, should continue for another 13 years, though it is voted on every two years.
    Dr. Schuch said he believes the efficiency review correctly identified “that we operate too many schools” and he believes the General Assembly will pay close attention as to whether the school system follows the recommendations of the efficiency review. That review projected an annual savings to the school system of $1.6 million by closing two schools.
    “I think this is something we have to do, even though we don’t want to (do it),” he said.
    Dr. Schuch said he made his recommendation based upon Thaxton Elementary’s needs, physical condition, student enrollment and where students would likely be redistricted.